Archive for Volleyball Coaching Q&A

Can you use the same drills across levels?

The following question was once posted in a volleyball coaching group.

I have a question about how you guys coach your teams differently based on the level. As in if the team you have in any particular year is younger, less experienced, less motivated ect. Do you use the same drills but let them out of the drill early if they dont get it or do you explain the importance and stick with a drill even if it takes all practice?

Let’s first address the question of whether you use the same drills and/or games across different skill and age levels. The answer to that is in some cases you can, and in some cases you can’t. The easiest example of this is a drill highly reliant on ball-handling ability. If you have a team which has not yet reached the point where they can pass or set well enough to make the drill work, then you have to go with something a bit less complex.

By that I mean this. There are games and drills which are simple in that they involve only one or two skills. A target serving drill, for example, only requires the players to perform one skill – serving. If you do serve reception, then the players perform two skills – serving and passing. As you add additional skills, you increase complexity. For example, if you add hitting to the serve reception you bring in the additional skills of setting and attacking.

Low complexity drills can be performed by just about any group. Your target level for completion may be lower, though, for the less-skilled ones (for example, a lower number of 3 passes required to finish a serve reception drill). It’s the higher complexity ones which require more skill and thus may not be suitable for lower level and/or younger groups.

As for whether you run a drill to completion, even if it takes all practice (or longer!), that depends. If you have three priority items for that training that you really want to hit, then put a time limit on any one activity. That way you are sure to have time for everything.

If that game or drill represents the single most important thing you want to focus on that session, then you may want to consider letting it run to completion. Be careful, though. You don’t want to lose the players. If they get too frustrated they might just shut down. Once that happens, nothing afterwards is worth anything in their development. If you see the focus starting to slip, I would suggest either altering the game/drill or cutting it short and going back to it later to finish.

Beyond what you do with your games and drills, I definitely think you coach teams differently. This isn’t just about their level of play, etc. Even teams of a similar level are different and require a slightly different approach.

Coaching professional volleyball – advice wanted

coaching professional volleyball

In the last few days I’ve had a pair of coaches ask me for advice on on starting a career coaching professional volleyball. One of them is an avid reader of this blog from Canada with both youth club and college level experience. The other is a current US college coach who it sounded like he came to hear about me by reading my article in the latest AVCA magazine.

First of all, seeing as I’m currently only in my first year coaching at the professional level in Europe, I’m not going to pretend to know everything there is about breaking in and making a career of it. Hopefully we can get some folks with more experience than myself to contribute to the discussion.

For now, though, I’ll share my own perspective on getting into coaching professional volleyball.

Something very important to understand about the European coaching market – and I’m guessing ones in other areas of the world as well – is that for the most part you’re not going going to see public job postings. In the US, and to a degree Canada and England, it’s pretty easy to find out about available coaching jobs through the list of volleyball job listings sites I’ve compiled. You may find narrowly defined sites – like the one that lists French and some Swiss openings – but you won’t find anything with broad coverage.

So how do you find out about openings?

Networking

Developing contacts in professional volleyball is something I strongly recommend. Networking is directly responsible for me getting my current job at Svedala. I heard about the job through one of my contacts. At the same time, the contacts I have can be useful references for positions I target. Also, they are sources of information on coaching life and careers and intelligence on the job market.

So how do you develop a professional coaching network?

The simple answer is to get out there and meet coaches. Yes, you can use LinkedIn and other online methods for finding people to connect with. Really, though, the best results in terms of creating good links and being able to learn is to get out and spend time with coaches. It’s something you might be doing in going to the AVCA Convention or the USA Volleyball High Performance Coaches Clinic, or other more regional events. A similar principle applies for looking abroad. Find the coaching events that happen each year (they are often in late Spring/Summer after the season ends).

Also, go spend some time in other coaches’ gyms. Aside from being a good learning opportunity, it gives you a chance to develop a more direct relationship with others. Don’t be shy. You’d be surprised how willing people are to have you visit with them – even those who are coaching professional volleyball!

Research

The other thing you definitely need to do is research. Think of the professional volleyball landscape as being similar to the conference structure in US collegiate volleyball. Some conferences have a very high competitive standard with lots of funding. Some conferences are at the other end of the spectrum entirely. The rest are at different points in the middle. In my post Professional volleyball country league rankings I talk about how they compare from at least the level of play perspective.

Use your coaching network to help in this research. One of my contacts in Germany was very helpful in giving me an idea of what coaching in Sweden would be like. He’d coached in Finland for several years, so knew the way of things in the Scandinavian countries.

Your research should help you narrow your target coaching market down based on your coaching credentials, where you might want to live, and the like. That then would allow you to concentrate on learning all you can about those leagues and teams – including potentially finding out when coaching jobs open up. It also gives you some specific targets for your networking efforts. After all, who’s better to tell you about your target league(s) than those who actually coach there?

And like researching potential employers anywhere, going through the process will help you figure out where and how your particular experience and talents match with what a team is looking for in a new coach.

Required Credentials

Let me start by talking certifications, licenses, and the like. In some countries they are required. Germany is an example of this. That isn’t to say a foreign coach must go through the full German licensing program in order to be hired, as there are accommodations, but you do have to jump through some hoops to be granted a German license. In Sweden there is no such requirement. Having coaching credentials from your home country (e.g. USA Volleyball CAP) definitely helps. In some cases they can be used to gain quick certification in the new country – as was my case in England.

The other thing I would bring up is that going the assistant coach route as a first step is likely to be very challenging. In the less well-funded leagues having an assistant coach at all is a luxury in some places. Even in the better funded leagues, finding assistant coaches earning reasonable money can be challenging. Many of them are required to also coach in the club’s youth teams, which may mean having to know the local language reasonably well.

As a result, you’re probably going to need to be thinking of going after a head coach job. That likely means you want to have some solid head coaching experience on your resume before trying to break into coaching professional volleyball.

Other considerations

When I got hired at Svedala I posted the basic terms of my contract here. That should give you an idea of the things to expect in that regard. Obviously, the specific terms and compensation will vary.

Note that I haven’t said anything about citizenship here. Generally speaking, professional clubs are able to arrange for working permits for foreign coaches. There’s an expense, though, so in some cases your status might factor in. This was something I ran up against exploring a Swiss job. If I’d been an EU citizen I may be coaching in Switzerland now rather than Sweden.

The other thing I would say is you need to realize that coaching professional volleyball has some considerable differences with coaching collegiate volleyball. I did a 3-part series on some of my observations which starts here. The most obvious one is the length of the season. In Europe you start play in October (with preseason starting as early as August) and you probably go until April, or even May in some cases. There is a brief holiday break (mine is about 10 days this year). That requires a different kind of thought and planning process.

Final thoughts

I think coaching professional volleyball is definitely something worth exploring if you’re in the right situation for it, though breaking in will require a lot of work. Obviously, it means uprooting your life and moving abroad – probably to a place where you don’t speak the language – and adapting to a whole new set of circumstances. You probably won’t make all that much money, but you’ll gain a lot of useful experience and education.

 

 

How do I help players play abroad?

I once had an email from an avid reader of the blog on the subject of professional volleyball. It was basically a 2-part question and I want to tackle part of it here. Basically, this person is coaching in Canada and is curious how Canadian players can take their game overseas. Specifically:

“… what can you tell me about possibility of Canadian players playing in Sweden or Europe. What should they expect ? Any details?”

First of all, let me say that when I coached for Svedala I looked at number of Canadian players while we were in the process of trying to secure our three foreigners for the current season. I remember there was at least one who I thought would be a good addition to the squad. She committed somewhere else, though. I believe at least one Canadian female player was in Sweden that year (2015-16). There could have been more on the men’s side.

The professional volleyball player hiring process struck me as being something quite similar in a lot of ways to the college recruiting process. At least from my end it was, anyway. By that I mean I spent a lot of time looking at video and researching players. I tried to assess each one who came to my attention, and to rate them against others in their position. Obviously, there isn’t the academic consideration, but you’re still trying to find a good ability, potential, and personality fit for the squad.

Get an agent

In the professional case, though, the vast majority of the players we hear about come to us via player agents. As much as I’ve heard my fair share of stories about a “get them signed and forget about them” approach which seems to often be the case among agencies, the reality of the situation is that they are probably a requirement.

Think about it from this perspective. There are dozens of countries where someone could potentially go to play volleyball professionally. Unlike the case of college volleyball, they don’t all speak the same language and getting contact information for the coach or manager isn’t always easy. On top of that, clubs have a wide variety of resources and ever changing player needs. These sorts of things are really hard for anyone just coming out of college volleyball to know.

The fact of the matter is that agents and agencies have the knowledge and experience to direct players toward countries and clubs where they are reasonable prospects. That’s how they get paid, so behooves them to stay up on the “market” from that perspective. They are constantly asking the clubs “What do you need?” and “What can you pay?”. Of course that doesn’t prevent them from trying to push a player for a higher salary, but that’s a whole other subject.

This isn’t to say a player couldn’t represent themselves. To do so, though, they would probably have to be very targeted and do a lot of research. One of my players said she’s been told by others she’s spoken with on the subject that many (most) players drop their agent after a couple of years because either they’re happy where they are or feel like they’ve developed the knowledge and contacts they need to do things themselves.

Expectations

In terms of what to expect, that’s a tricky thing to answer – in part because I’m still relatively new to it myself. Also, though, from what I’ve heard conditions and player treatment can vary considerably.

Generally speaking, a player contract will have their accommodation provided by the club, along with at least one set of flights to/from there. Beyond that, it becomes situational. There could be a vehicle provided. Some meals may be part of the deal. A ticket home for the holidays could be on offer, and other things as well.

Then there’s the question of player treatment. In some places players will be sent home for one of any number of reasons (performance, club finances, etc.) while in other places that sort of thing doesn’t really happen except in the case of major injury. Some places players get paid on time with no issues, while in other places that can be a dicey thing. Quality of living arrangements can be varied as well.

From what I’ve been told, the Scandinavian countries are generally seen as a good stepping-stone for those thinking of a professional volleyball career. The clubs are stable and the cultural transition for players from the US and Canada is fairly easy. Of course the trade-off is that the pay scales are lower. For those looking to get a feel for what life as a pro would be like, though, it seems like a reasonable first step.

Recommendations

What I would recommend to coaches who have players with overseas aspirations is that they do a few things:

  • Research the player agents and agencies so you can point players in the right direction.
  • Put players in touch with others with experience playing abroad (and talk with them yourself)
  • Develop overseas coaching contacts so you can at least gain your own understanding of the landscape and maybe feed players through directly in some cases.

Hope that helps. I would love to get some comments and insights from others with experience in professional volleyball and the process.

What type of defense do you run?

I was asked by a reader what type of defense I use with my team and my thoughts on the subject.

Generally speaking, my starting point is the perimeter defense. This is a structure where the back row defenders play toward the edges of the court. That’s where most of the hard attacked balls go when there’s a decent block. Some also call this a middle-back defense. I start there because it’s something most players have played and understand well.

From there, though, I think about things in two ways.

Personnel

There are certain player requirements to play a perimeter defense (or any other, for that matter). For example, the defender in 6 needs to be a good reader and able to move well laterally. Not every player is suited to that role. For example, I had an Exeter player who was very aggressive in attacking the ball played in front of her. She did not, however, move laterally well. That mandated she play defense in 5 rather than 6.

You’re also thinking about things like your block and potential back row attack. When I coached at Brown in the libero’s early days, we didn’t do much by way of back row attacking. We generally played our OHs in 5 and our Libero in 6. The idea there was that the OHs were basically specialists in digging cross-court balls. We made a change, though, because our block channeled balls cross-court and we wanted our best digger – our libero – in position to play them.

Opposition

Sometimes you want to change things up to better defend against certain teams or types of attacks. The rotation defense in which the defender in 1 one covers tips, and the defender in 6 rotates toward the line, can be used to defend against teams that play a lot of shots. We did this at Exeter against weaker teams at times. At Brown we actually used a type of rotation defense against teams that liked to attack line to have a better digger in that position. At Svedala we looked to use a rotation defense when we had our smaller second string setter playing to have more line defense when she was front row.

Of course you have to consider all the implications. Using a rotation defense tends to get your front row OH out of having to play balls way into the court – which makes it hard for them to then attack. At the same time, though, it likely means your setter having to play more first balls.

The bottom line

At the end of the day you want to put your players in the positions they are best suited to play within the context of a general block-defensive philosophy related to what you expect to see from the teams you play. Consider how you view the objective of defense and position your players accordingly.

Philosophy on 2-person serve receive

I had a question come in from a reader recently on the subject of serve receive. Here it is:

Do you have any thoughts, articles, philosophies about 2 person serve receive?  I am coaching a good 16s juniors team and would like to think outside the box some.

I have actually used a 2-man reception with a team myself. It was a boy’s team back in 1998 for a state tournament. I had two clearly strong passers – one an OH and one a RS. It worked out pretty well. We won the gold. 🙂

At that point, though, the serving in the boys’ game wasn’t as tough as it’s become. We didn’t face any jump servers that I can recall. As a result, it was much easier for two players to cover the court than it likely would be today. It would be a challenge to go with only 2 passers in the women’s game because they physically don’t cover as much space as men and the flatter trajectory of the serves already makes them very challenging to pass.

I can still see value in a 2-person reception focus, though. By that I mean having two players take most of the court with one or more others having smaller, defined areas of coverage. You can actually see this sort of thing at work when a team wants to limit how much passing a front row attacker has to do. They push them toward the side line and let the libero and back row attacker take like 80% of the court.

Personally, I think there are always opportunities to put your best passers in position to take the most balls. You need to consider what sort of serves you’ll be facing and look at your rotations. There may be ways you can position non-primary passers to take certain balls. For example, a MB taking short serves in their zone. It’s all about maximizing what you have.

Line-up and substitution strategies for a 12s team

I received the following email from a reader who is struggling with a personnel use strategy for her young team and wants some help.

My husband and I are new coaches to 12u club volleyball team in Missouri. One thing that we struggle with is the substitution rules and rotation strategies. We have been running a 5-1 for ease, but would like to introduce the 6-2. We have 8 players. Do you sub a player for position only? Can libero only go in for any player in the back row only? Do most setters play all around or come out when on the back row?

My immediate response in this case is to suggest that 12s is too early for positional specialization. This is something I talked about in the post Coaching Youngsters Like College Players (the comment by Rich is very worth reading). There should be no libero, and there shouldn’t be players who are only setters. Instead, every player should be playing in all positions. Plenty of time for specialization later.

With these young players the focus is 100% on development in all facets of play. I know this is the stance of USA Volleyball. Volleyball England has expressed the same view, and I’m sure there are other national federations who agree.

It’s not about winning on the scoreboard. It’s about winning in terms of development. Sally Kus talks in her book Coaching Volleyball Successfully about using alternative scoring methods to have the kids focused on playing the game properly, not simply trying to win.

From that perspective, the preferred system is a 6-6 where everyone sets and everyone hits. Substitution strategy is then down to appropriately sharing out playing time.

That’s my view, anyway. I’m happy to hear other opinions.

Recommendations to help improve the serve toss

Improving a team’s serving is something that coaches of especially younger teams are always looking to do. Even when I coached at Exeter, I spent a fair amount of time focused on serving, to good benefit. Invariably, once raw strength is sufficient to get the ball over the net overhand, the biggest factor is serving performance is a consistent toss. The following question from a reader highlights this.

I coach a HS JV team. Each player has the potential to have great serves: they are strong and when the connect properly, their serves are rockets. However, they are inconsistent due to their toss. Their toss will sometime either be too low or to the side which creates a serve into the net or out.

What are your recommendations to help improve a perfect toss?

There are a couple of things I can suggest to help players with their toss.

Video

Record your players serving from either directly behind them or directly in front (behind is probably safer!). This will show quite clearly where players are tossing the ball, which is probably all over the place. Show them an example of a good toss, and then show them where there own tosses are in comparison (see the sandwich idea).

Short Serves

A lot of screwy mechanical things can come into play when players serve full-court because they are thinking about power. Have them serve from mid-court where power is not a concern. That way they can focus on consistent tosses and good ball contact.

When I was at Exeter, nearly every training with the women’s team featured what I called a serving warm-up. It was players serving back and forth in pairs starting just about the 3m line and gradually backing up to the end line. This both served to warm-up their shoulders and to give them time to work on their mechanics. I would do this with any team where developing good serving technique is a priority.

I should note that even coaching professional players as I did at Svedala there are toss-related issues (saw them when working with the TV Bühl guys as well). They aren’t usually as dramatic, and take on a different character, but they can be equally influential.

See also How to teach the overhand serve to volleyball beginners

Volleyball hitter coverage strategy

I had a reader email asked whether I had any volleyball hitter coverage diagrams for both the 5-1 and 6-2 offensive systems.

My personal philosophy on hitter coverage is that the three players closest to the attacker should be the ones doing the close coverage. The two players furthest away have deep cover. Normally, for a set to the left front attacker hitting in Position 4, that is going to look like the diagrams below. The one on the left is for when the setter is front row. The one on the right is for when the setter is back row. Really, though, they are both pretty much the same.

Volleyball hitter coverage for pin attack

The above assumes the middle hitter is running a 1st tempo (quick) in front of the setter. Since the middle is already at the net, the setter moves off the net to fill the area between them. The left back then comes in to cover behind the outside hitter (OH). If the middle is running a slower tempo (i.e. a 2 ball), then the setter goes along the net and the middle and setter coverages are reversed. In both cases, the middle back player and the remaining right side player would split the rest of the court between them in deep positions.

The trick comes when the middle runs something behind the setter – especially the slide. In that case, they are likely to be one of the furthest away from the attacker. That means someone else needs to move in to provide close coverage. The right back player is an option, depending on how close they are to the net.

The diagrams below show the ideal coverages for middle and right side attack. In the former case, it’s quite a bit like defense for a middle attack. In the latter case, it looks like a mirror of what is shown above for an attack through Position 4. There’s one catch, though. Because the setter has vacated right back, the middle back player has to get over to provide the third person in close coverage.

Volleyball hitter coverage for middle attack

All of the above is ideal scenario. Realistically, though, unless you’re playing a relatively slow offense (lots of high sets) you probably won’t see exactly these sorts of configurations happening very often – especially if you have your libero always do close cover. That’s why I said at the beginning the general idea is for the three players closest to the attack – whoever they may be – to find a good position near the hitter and handle the tight cover, leaving the other two for the deeper areas of the court.

The place where this tends to break down most frequently is with whichever attacker ends up in Zone 2. That could be it the right front player or the middle running the side. For whatever reason, they often get lazy about getting into the coverage.

Another tricky situation is on the middle slide. The setter is, as usual, going to turn and follow their set. The right back comes up to cover close behind. That leaves the left front, left back, and middle back players. One of them needs to try to take the short, with the other two staying deep. If there’s a libero on the court, they will likely be the choice. If you run a pipe attack it factors in to things as well, though.

As for back row attacks, generally speaking I like the front row player closest to where the ball will cross the net to be directly under the block. This is especially true at lower levels where the attack power isn’t that great.

Creating a platform for a season plan

I had an interesting question come from a volleyball coach in New Zealand named Leanne. Here are the salient points:

I was looking to help ‘shortcut’ in a way, creating a platform for a season plan.

The reason is I coach across a range of age groups and experience. All Men’s teams – high school start up group (first time volleyballers 12-17yr olds); senior high school (playing minimum of 3 years, competitive athletes, a range of schools, clubs, rep players 15-18yr olds); club men (a range in age of 17-50yr, competitive athletes, choosing volleyball as their preferred sport of choice; national team (U17 Men age group). So my time is always stretched. I do place emphasis on my planning season, breaking this down to segments working towards small and large goals – both player and coaching staff initiated.

I am always seeking ways to help be more proficient and efficient and I think in my season planning area I could improve on with a ‘base’ platform that asks questions to remind me on aspects of hard and soft skills.

Is there anything that you have come across?

I can’t think of any specific coaching tool available which deals with this sort of thing (though I’d love to hear it if you have). Something like Microsoft Project in terms of a project management software package might be of use. They can be handy for plotting out when you want to work on certain things during the season time line. The price tag for those types of packages tend to be high because business types are the target market. I think for practical purposes a spreadsheet should suffice in most cases.

Regardless of the tool being used to lay out the plan, however, there are a couple of important things which need to be in place.

Priorities

I’ve written before on the importance of knowing your priorities. No season plan is going to be worth anything if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish. Leanne is working across a pretty diverse group of players and teams. Each has a different set of priorities to be defined and developed as the foundation of the season plan. For example, the high school start-up group is very likely to be mainly focused on skill development while the other teams probably have a greater focus on competitive performance.

Broad Objectives

Within the context of the defined priorities, then next question is what exactly you’re looking to accomplish, and in what time frame. These should be objective and measurable as much as possible. We aren’t talking about winning and losing here. Yes, that is conveniently easy and precise to measure, but it’s based on outcomes which include a lot of variables outside a coach’s control.

An example of a well-defined objective comes from the US Men’s National Team. It was repeated a number of times during the latter stages of the 2015 World League coverage (see the match videos here) that the team was looking to attack about 35% out of the middle – either quick attacks from the Middle Hitter or Pipe/Bic attacks out of the back row – during match play. This is something clear and measurable.

Milestones

You can think of milestones as mini objectives. They are the stepping-stone goals you need to achieve along the way which then build into achieving the higher level outcome desired. Consider the 35% middle attack example above. What might the milestones be along the way to that? At the most basic level it would involve developing the ability to run middle quicks and fast back row attacks. It would also involve a certain degree of passing accuracy. Perhaps at the next level comes the ability to execute in both serve reception and transition situations.

Progress and Evaluation

The real value of the milestones is that they give you specific points of reference. They tell you what you should be working on now based on your objectives. They are also the basis for evaluating your progress. Making rapid progress? Maybe you can shift your focus to another priority. Making slow progress? Maybe you need to allocate more time to certain things.

This is a dynamic process. As much as it might be nice to define a specific time frame in which something will happen, allowing you to then move on to the next milestone or objective, it’s rarely that straightforward. Teams and players progress at different rates, so chances are you will find yourself constantly evaluating where you are at relative to where you want to be.

The advantage of having defined objectives and milestones, though, is that no matter where you are you know what you need to be working on. And to Leanne’s point, this applies to both the physical and mental aspects of things.

Actual points of reference

At the end of the day, what I think Leanne is after is something which will provide reminders of key things to focus on relative to the defined objectives and milestones. That’s a tricky one as it strikes me as being potentially quite coach-specific. What I say are the key points of consideration when developing a 35% rate of attack out of the middle may be quite different from what you think, and of course are likely to vary from team to team. I’m going to give the idea of consistent points of focus some thought from my own perspective, though.

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